This week in Proust: Page, um, oh, never mind.


“We have a very narrow view of what is going on.” – Daniel Kahneman


My scarf is finished, but I’m still listening to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.    Time to get a mitten pattern, perhaps. I think of Proust often when I’m listening to Kahneman (read by Patrick Egan).  Many of the observations Proust makes about the mind were prescient of recent research into the brain and human consciousness.   Kahneman is a psychologist fascinated by how people form beliefs and make decisions.  Proust often thought about the same things.

Of course, I’m not the first person to suggest that some of Proust’s observations about the human mind and emotions have the precision of a scientist.   Jonah Lehrer, for one, says the same thing in his book, Proust was a Neuroscientist.

Lehrer is a good example of some of the cognitive fallacies Kahneman talks about.  For instance, there’s “The Halo Effect”,  where  we may assume someone is credible, wise and moral because he’s likeable. Lehrer shot to fame with his blog, essays and personal appearances, only to be later discredited for some sketchy journalistic practices including recycling his work in “new” articles and making up Bob Dylan quotes for his book on creativity, Imagine.   Then there’s the “Peak-end Rule”, where our memory or interpretation of past events depends on the most intense part of the experience and the way it ends.  Unfortunately for Lehrer, our interpretation of him and his work is, for now, defined by his recent departure from the New Yorker and public disgrace.

ANYWAY,  this week I decided to jot down a few observations about how the mind works, from Marcel Proust, a writer with a scientific curiosity, and  Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist with a poetic sensibility.  Thank you to an interesting interview with Kahneman at Spiegel, and the wonderful review of his book by Jim Holt at The New York Times.

Optimism: Illogical, but you can’t live without it.

 “I have always believed that scientific research is another domain where a form of optimism is essential to success: I have yet to meet a successful scientist who lacks the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing, and I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the face of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes, the fate of most researchers.” – Kahneman

“I knew very well that this hope was chimerical. I was like a pauper who mingles fewer tears with his dry bread if he tells himself that at any moment a stranger will bequeath to him his fortune. We must all, in order to make reality more tolerable, keep alive in us a few little follies.” – Proust

The Halo Effect: We meet someone, we like him, he must be great in every way!

“Even the very simple act that we call “seeing a person we know” is in part an intellectual one. We fill the physical appearance of the individual we see with all the notions we have about him, and of the total picture that we form for ourselves, these notions certainly occupy the greater part.” – Proust

“System 2”, the analytical part of our thinking, is kinda lazy.

“Most of our faculties lie dormant because they can rely upon Habit, which knows what there is to be done and has no need of their services.” – Proust

The Peak-End Rule: It’s all about how it turns out.

“Our memory is like a shop in the window of which is exposed now one, now another photograph of the same person. And as a rule the most recent exhibit remains for some time the only one to be seen.” – Proust

Now that you know about cognitive fallacies, you’re smarter, right?

“Our comforting conviction that world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” – Kahneman

“Facts do not find their way into the world in which our beliefs reside; they did not produce our beliefs, they do not destroy them; they may inflict on them the most constant refutations without weakening them, and an avalanche of afflictions or ailments succeeding one another without interruption in a family will not make it doubt the goodness of its God or the talent of its doctor.” – Proust

Thoughts and feelings affect how you experience your life, and experience time:

“So your emotional state really has a lot to do with what you’re thinking about and what you’re paying attention to.” – Kahneman

“The time at our disposal each day is elastic; the passions we feel dilate it, those that inspire us shrink it, and habit fills it.” – Proust

Which is you?  The experiencing self?  Or the remembering self?

“Experienced happiness refers to your feelings, to how happy you are as you live your life. In contrast, the satisfaction of the remembering self refers to your feelings when you think about your life.” – Kahneman

 “I was not unhappy, except one day at a time.” – Proust



Stuff I’m reading. I mean, um, listening to.


“After three days without reading, talk becomes flavorless.” – Chinese Proverb


I’ve never  listened to audio books much.  I guess nothing’s prevented me from sitting down with a book pretty much whenever I wanted.  Still, it’s nice having someone read to you.  On school nights my mother used to read to us at the dinner table. We read The Hobbit and The Secret World of Og that way.

The big market for audio books seems to be travelers.  Of course, you can read a book on a plane (unless you’re the pilot, in which case I hope you’re paying attention to what you’re doing. It’s a long way down.)  But you really shouldn’t be reading while driving –  or putting on makeup or eating an orange either.  Then there are people who work alone at some manual task, such as artists and the like.  Audio books can be a nice companion in the studio, I imagine.

Anyway, I find myself listening to a few books right now.  It’s great when you don’t own a t.v., or your internet goes down, or you’re trying to finish knitting that scarf you started.  Or maybe it’s just quiet at your place.   Here’s what’s currently on my laptop:

Moby Dick Big Read

Ok, this isn’t technically an audio book.  It’s more of a project.  Philip Hoare and Angela Cockayne wanted to bring to contemporary readers a chapter a day of the book Hoare describes as “the great unread American novel”. There’s an original artwork presented with each chapter.   As Mary Norris, one of the fans and readers says in this New Yorker article, “Having a fresh voice and image for each succeeding chapter brings ever renewed enthusiasm to a story that I can’t imagine anyone finding boring for a single word.”   It really is the perfect book to have read to you, and there’s a host of enthusiastic readers, some professional, some not, for its 135 chapters.  When it’s all done, you can say that you’ve read Moby-Dick!  And I think you might love it. I should warn you, nothing much happens in Moby-Dick.  At least not until the last three chapters. But as you’re knitting  or throwing paint around or whatever, you can enjoy Ishmael’s philosophical digressions on, well, everything.  And there’s Queequeg.  I don’t mean Scully’s dog.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Patrick Egan’s clear and animated reading of Daniel Kahneman’s engaging book made me laugh out loud several times.  And at 499 pages and 16 audio discs, my scarf will be around my neck in no time.

It would take a while to summarize this book adequately.  There’s a great review at the New York Times by Jim Holt.  What I can say is that it will make you think differently about how you form beliefs and make decisions.  Kahneman describes our thinking as taking place in one of two ways: either with  System 1, which is fast, intuitive and relational, or System 2, which is slower, analytical and quantitative.  Most of the time the systems are used for different types of cognitive tasks.  Problems can occur when System 1 jumps to conclusions, and System 2 is too lazy to bother questioning 1’s assumptions.  Kahneman uses lots of examples from research, as well as personal anecdotes, to demonstrate both the benefits and pitfalls of these two ways of thinking. If this all sounds rather complex and dry, it isn’t.  The book is entertaining and completely fascinating, and you find yourself thinking about what role your thought processes and emotions have on your perception of reality, and how you might consciously change the way you perceive the world and your experience.

Quiet by Susan Cain

This was one I picked up on audio at the library because it seemed faster than waiting for the book.  There were twenty-eight “holds” for the book, and just one for the audio version.  It’s a book about introverts – especially being an introvert in an extrovert’s world.

Cain is not a psychologist, and Quiet is not as rigorously researched as Kahneman’s book.  But I was smiling with appreciation as Cain spoke about our culture’s opinion that introversion is a flaw, and that an introvert’s true nature is “wrong”.  We may identify with Lisa Simpson, but we secretly want to be Bart.  But it’s not just that we like extrovert’s more.  It’s that our measures of success, the things we value, and the way we insist people learn and work, are skewed to the benefit of extroverts.   I remember a recent discussion at a family barbecue, where we (a bunch of bookish introverts) wondered why so many companies felt that the ideal team building exercises were activities like picnics with competitive games – sack races, and so forth.  Most of us secretly dreaded this type of thing, and had to fight our natural inclinations in order to fit in.  Cain’s not the first to suggest a cultural extrovert bias.  There’s a fun article  about misunderstood introverts by Jonathan Rauch from The Atlantic published in 2003.  But what Rauch introduced in a playful magazine column, Cain has expanded to an earnest, book length manifesto.

In order to give comfort and succor to the dweeby, though, there are sacrifices to be made to a nuanced view.  Are you an introvert or an extrovert?  Cain has a quick quiz, but points out that if your answers were split down the middle, you might be an “ambivert”.  I don’t know how much she elaborates on this later, but  it brings up some interesting ideas.  The last time I completed the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator, (oooh, I love personality tests!) I fell almost exactly halfway between introvert and extrovert.  With years of working in an extrovert’s world, I trained myself to be more extroverted.  Now it really is a part of who I am.  Yes, I live inside my head a lot.  Yes, my best ideas come to me when I’m alone.  But there’s a part of me that wants to throw a party, to write a blog, to be the recipient of others’ regard, and to ask people endless questions about themselves.   Lately some tolerant and friendly strangers have shared more than they originally intended about verdicchio wines, this year’s apple crop, or how they started their bookstore. Just because no one calls you doesn’t mean you want to be alone.  But, “Yay!” for  my introvert nature, which has helped me  weather recent events.   And for my extrovert side, I  have audio books.  I can just pretend there’s someone else in the room.

Are you a misunderstood introvert or extrovert?  Disguising your true nature?   Any favourite audio books, or books you read to someone special, or had read to you?  Share in the comments!